Academic journal article Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry

"Every Man His Specialty": Beckett, Disability, and Dependence

Academic journal article Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry

"Every Man His Specialty": Beckett, Disability, and Dependence

Article excerpt

I: "To decompose is to live, too"

In Bending Over Backwards Lennard Davis coins the term "dismodernism" to describe the ways that disability challenges ideas of liberal autonomy and able-bodied normalcy that underwrite contemporary identity politics. As a social model, dismodernism shares with theories of postmodernism a skepticism toward grand narratives of Subjecthood and historical teleology, but Davis faults much postmodern theory for maintaining a social constructionist view of identity on the one hand while retaining a politics of multiculturalism and core group identity on the other. Reprising recent scientific discoveries in the field of genetics that disprove the biological basis of race, sexuality or ethnicity, he asks "how does it make sense to say there is a social construction of it." (1) Discourses of race, gender, and sexuality are products of late nineteenth-century medical science--as is disability--but unlike these other areas, disability crosses all such categories and is the one identity position that all of us, if we live long enough, may inhabit. Its pervasiveness and instability permit Davis to see disability as a kind of ur-identity constructed within the technologies of bio-power yet a subject position not bound by specific genetic, economic, or racial markers. The dismodernist ideal "aims to create a new category based on the partial, incomplete subject whose realization is not autonomy and independence but dependency and interdependence." (2)

Although Davis conflates a postmodern philosophical stance toward performativity with a historical, post-civil rights cultural politics, he does point to a key limitation of rights claims that presume a healthy, independent (probably white, probably heterosexual, male) ideal to the exclusion of those deemed "defective" or unable to make "rational choices." In this respect he joins a number of recent theorists--Albert Memmi, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Berube, Eva Kittay, and Alasdaire MacIntyre--for whom a consideration of dependency challenges the social contract as it has been conceived from Rousseau and Hume to Rawls and asks whether contractarian ideals can stand the test of differently abled bodies? (3) Stated succinctly by Eva Kittay, dependency critique asserts that the idea of society as an association of equals "masks inequitable dependencies, those of infancy and childhood, old age, illness and disability. While we are dependent, we are not well positioned to enter a competition for the goods of social cooperation on equal terms." (4) Although liberal theories of social justice imply equal access to the public sphere, they do not account for individuals who, because of cognitive impairment or physical disability, cannot cooperate on "equal" and independent terms. Nor are dependent relations validated in the common weal. Citizens who need special accommodations are often stigmatized as narcissists, whiners, and drains on public funds. Their requests for "reasonable accommodations" under the ADA have led to a series of court cases that have been, for the most part, decided against the plaintiffs. The need for interpreters, care-givers, therapists, and social services places persons with disabilities in conflict with liberal ideals of independence and self-reliance. (5) Can a model of independent living--the basis of the disability rights movement--coincide with what Alasdair MacIntyre calls the "virtues of acknowledged dependence" that implicate all of us? (6)

Martha Nussbaum's Frontiers of Justice answers these questions with a resounding "not yet" and in particular charges John Rawls' Theory of Justice with bracketing the rights of persons with disabilities, poor persons, and nonhuman animals as constituencies that cannot be included in Rawls "original position"--those "normal conditions under which human cooperation is both possible and necessary." (7) Against contract models of human rights that stress cooperation for mutual benefit, Nussbaum argues for a rights discourse from the standpoint of what she calls, adapting Amatyra Sen, "capabilities"--"what people are actually able to do and to be in a way informed by an intuitive idea of a life that is worthy of the dignity of the human being. …

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